Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president, was rebuffed on Sunday as he made a series of high-profile and often chaotic attempts to re-enter Ukraine, which stripped him of his citizenship and left him stateless in July.
In a fiasco that unfolded late into the day, the man who was until recently governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, was forced to change plans several times to cross the border from Poland, disrupting road and train travel and embroiling border guards from both countries.
His attempt to re-enter Ukraine, accompanied by a media circus and opposition politicians including Yulia Tymoshenko, the former premier, came just over a month after President Petro Poroshenko raised eyebrows by revoking the citizenship of his former university friend.
Praised for his reforms as Georgian leader from 2004 to 2013 but latterly criticised for an authoritarian streak, Mr Saakashvili accepted Ukrainian citizenship in 2015 when Mr Poroshenko asked him to take over governing the strategically important Black Sea region of Odessa.
He resigned from that role last November, accusing Ukraine’s president of stalling reforms and engaging in political corruption. He then launched his own opposition political group.
Mr Saakashvili spent the weeks since losing his citizenship hyping his planned return to Ukraine as an opposition challenger, continuing to travel within the EU on his revoked Ukrainian passport.
He first headed to the Krakovets road border on Sunday crossing in a hired bus. He then said he would switch to travelling by train “to avoid provocations” at Krakovets, where dozens of camouflage-clad opponents and supporters had gathered.
He boarded a Ukrainian high-speed train in the nearby Polish city of Przemysl, but Ukrzaliznytsia, Ukraine’s state railway company, refused to allow the train to depart.
“Can you imagine what kind of savages we are dealing with . . . to stop an entire train on foreign territory . . . in the EU . . . with hundreds of passengers? This is the way he wants to run Ukraine?” Mr Saakashvili said in a live television stream from the train, in a thinly veiled reference to Mr Poroshenko.
As the train stood for hours just a few kilometres from the border, some irritated passengers left to travel on specially organised buses.
Ukrzaliznytsia said the train was “delayed because of a person who has no grounds for entering Ukraine.”
Mr Saakashvili later got back into a hired tourist bus and headed for a different road crossing.
His chances of getting into Ukraine appeared slim, however. One official with knowledge of the matter told the Financial Times that border guards would seize his Ukrainian passport and return him to Poland should he reach the frontier. If he tried to enter Ukraine using different documents, such as an international travel document issued by another country, he risked being extradited to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, another official said.
Failure to get back into Ukraine leaves the leader of Georgia’s 2003 pro-democracy “Rose” revolution in political and legal limbo.
His relationship with Mr Poroshenko particularly began to disintegrate after the Georgian failed to secure Ukraine’s prime ministership in an early 2015 government reshuffle.
After moving into opposition, Mr Saakashvili failed to muster strong voter backing even as Mr Poroshenko’s poll numbers plunged. Ukraine’s state migration service said in July the Georgian had failed to reveal details of criminal investigations against him in Georgia when he took his Ukrainian passport.
Stripped of his Georgian citizenship in 2015, Mr Saakashvili describes the charges against him there as politically motivated.